Meet the Maker
Botanical artist Nicky Andrag’s passion for plants and conserving nature.
Words Robyn Alexander. Production Sven Alberding. Photography Warren Heath/Bureaux
“Ihad to learn to trust my gut about what is beautiful,” says plant-lover and committed conservationist Nicky Andrag. She’s relating the story of how she came to start her botanical art studio, Velt, in 2017. It’s a tale that takes o from the point at which, exhausted by the relentless demands of a high-pressure corporate job, Andrag decided to leave the world of IT behind her – and ends with a childhood passion for pressed flowers being transformed into a thriving small creative business. Andrag’s story will sound familiar to many. A creative person at heart, she graduated from South Africa’s Vega School – which focuses on training in design and brand communication – in the late 2000s, but ended up working as a project manager in the field of software development. Some eight years later she was almost completely burnt out, and in those pre-pandemic times, working from home or requesting more flexible working hours was out of the question. Bravely, Andrag resigned, with the initial intention of simply taking some much-needed time out. The instant transition to having what she describes as “too much time” in a day was a shock, so she expended some of it on long daily walks with her beloved dog, Luna, in the forests and mountainside sanctuaries that many Capetonians are fortunate enough to be able to access. “I had to learn to let go,” she says, “and make peace with stripping back” in the face of what she acknowledges were feelings of “guilt about doing nothing”. Those long, grounding walks in nature also became a time to ponder a new direction, however, and one of the questions Andrag began asking herself was “What did I most enjoy doing during my childhood?” The answer: flower pressing. Knowing she had loved the entire process of pressing various flora to preserve them as a child, and inspired by her increasing connection with the natural world around her, by her mother (a dedicated gardener) and by her own bent for conservation, Andrag began a process of research and development that led to the emergence of Velt. Right away, as she refreshed and rediscovered her pressing skills, she rejected the idea of conventional box frames for her work. She was attracted to glass “sandwich” framing with soldered edges, feeling that this style showed o the floral specimens best as well as feeling fresh and contemporary. So, she went o to learn to solder these herself. It was a time of experimentation – “and plenty of mistakes!” laughs Andrag. Key to what she wanted to achieve was a beautiful and sophisticated result, but Andrag is also conscious of needing to continuously stay “grounded” in her work. She focuses on making every aspect of Velt meticulously respectful of nature, with an eye on the ongoing task of preservation and environmental awareness too. There’s a definite “spiritual side” to her work, she explains, saying that “working with plants, you become aware that they each have their own energy” – and that this needs to be respected. As a result, every Velt piece exudes love and care for the natural world. “Velt is all about the preservation of nature,” Andrag says, remarking that the notion of stopping to smell the flowers might be a cliché, but that it’s true: most people don’t pay much attention to the amazing complexity of the natural world around them. And having spent the past few years carefully harvesting plants – she only sources her specimens from farms and gardens – and working to understand their unique forms as she meticulously processes and presses them, Andrag’s respect for the natural world has considerably increased, she says. So, part of her mission at Velt is to encourage others to change their perspective too. As she suggests, her glass displays give a modern twist to admiring the diversity of shape, form and texture that plants have evolved – as well as allowing a comprehensive view of them, because the “sandwich” of glass in which they are displayed allows both sides of the plant to be visible. With the younger generation in particular, Andrag says, this is definitely striking a chord, and hopefully helping to advance a conservation-conscious view of the world. Having started out selling at markets and now operating primarily via its online store as well as being available through selected stockists across South Africa, Velt currently o ers works that slot into five broad categories: The Ocean’s Garden (seaweeds), Life with Ferns, Love of Leaves, Bougainvillea Summer, Orchid Blooms and Bushveld Living (grasses). Orchids are particularly popular, says Andrag, while youthful customers seem especially attracted to the ethereal, often colourful pieces featuring bougainvillea blooms. She herself loves the seaweed works – in spite of the fact that the plants’ extremely high moisture levels make them di icult to press – because these convey something of the uniqueness of ocean flora. Andrag also regularly works on special commissions. She has collaborated with interior designers on bespoke projects, including a complex two-metre piece created with Andrea Kleinloog of Johannesburg’s Anatomy Design, which now has pride of place in the lounge area of the luxurious Kruger Shalati lodge. For the spa at the new Singita Kwitonda lodge in Rwanda, Nicky produced 12 large works, and she’s also recently used foliage foraged on site by the designers of a lodge in Botswana to create unique pieces that feature the endemic plant species of the area around it. Private commissions include regular requests to press and preserve wedding bouquets, and pressed floral funeral tributes, too. Future plans for Velt include a new type of product that is still in the concept and prototyping stage, and includes stained glass elements. “It’s quite bright and Art Deco, in a way,” Andrag says. She’s also involved in the development of a conservation project in Kafue National Park, Zambia, together with her husband. It’s an understatement to say that this all seems a rather long way from software development: for Andrag, what began as a way to explore and celebrate a connection with plants is now leading her towards long-term ways to conserve and respect the natural world. velt.co.za